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Much of the service necessarily provided by an architect is a function of the building industry marketplace; performance of the builder; and interpretations by the authorities having jurisdiction. These are not under the architect’s control.
–The AIBC Tariff of Fees for Architectural Services
Sit in on any architecture studio review and listen to both the invited and future professionals. From both sides of registration it’s clear that the expressed sympathies of our discipline frequently align themselves with the disenfranchised. While in school we contemplate social housing and design generous public space. We value the public realm and care about the poor.
The reality of practice is less kind, and for most of us it is quickly clear that it is the nature of our discipline (the design of big, expensive things) to work for the rich. It doesn’t take long to understand that we may not be of the 1%, but we certainly work for them.
How is this the case? How are the ethical and moral ambitions of youth tackled so quickly? Where do the barriers to continued advocacy and empathy come from?
The (lazy) first order response to this lament is that (unfortunately) architecture is a fee-for-service industry. The (economic) logic is that in a fee-for-service system (of course) people with less money will receive less architecture. Architecture is a service industry (they deserve less). The implication is that architecture is a commodity like any other (we sell donuts, not healthcare) where ability to pay matters more than need. Architecture (unfortunately) is for those who can afford it and (sorry) anyone else should feel lucky to get some (at all).
In making this argument architects confirm two things. First, the validity of the established economic system, and second their powerlessness within in it. This is essentially the position of the The Tariff: architects have little influence in three significant spheres that overlap with our own. We are poorly positioned in the marketplace to have meaningful influence; we are contractually separated from the contractors that execute our work; and we are subject to the interpretation of the authority having jurisdiction.
The ‘argument’ and The Tariff agree on our lack of influence in the system, but they fail to articulate why our influence is limited, even if they confirm its truth. Part of the answer lies in the Architects Act and By-Laws in addition to The Tariff and I will address those in my next post, but for the moment, let’s contain ourselves to the marketplace or economic aspect.
The truth of this actually fairly simple, and the proof straightforward. This is the truth: within the construct of the North American economy, architecture is an artificial discipline. We are unwanted. The proof is to entertain the counterfactual: What if there were no Architects Act? That is to say, what if owners were not compelled by law to hire an architect – what then? The answer is obvious, if terrifying. In a pure economic calculus, most clients would regard architects as an unnecessary cost and architects lose.
That we are not essential in turn answers why we have little influence in the marketplace. We exist by fiat, literally legislated into existence – poof! – not as a result of economic necessity. The result is that we have almost no influence through practice to direct what should be built.
The expanding Insite program in Vancouver is illustrative here. Central to economics is that marketplaces are efficient and tend towards equilibrium. Marketplaces attempt to meet needs and in a world were architects wielded greater economic influence it is conceivable that the needs present in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside might be met – even if just a little more.
What if there were no Architects Act:
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Up next: It’s not just the economy, stupid.